Re-entering the bardo

We're all alone, together

Art: Ocean Waves, Katsushika Hokusai

A couple months ago, I went back to work after maternity leave, and described the mood of maternity leave as being in the bardo,

The bardo is the idea in Buddhism that where you’ve died, you become decoupled from your body and you wait, suspended, for your next life to start. The bardo is a liminal state: a place of uncertainty, change and possibility, of fragility.

Maternity leave and the early days of a baby’s life are the bardo. Not only do you lose most agency of your body as long as you’re recovering from birth and are tied to your baby, you become completely unmoored from your life.

There is no day and night, only three-hour stretches between feedings. For a long time, the baby slept in our room, and in order to keep it in a state so that he could fall asleep, there was always a white noise machine running, and the curtains were always completely closed. Walking around in semi-dark, white-noise-filled state, rocking a baby, is what I will always remember about my bardo.

I was just mourning the loss of this state when COVID hit, and I feel like I’m back in the bardo.

Last week I wrote,

It’s the end of week two of the quarantine in the United States and it’s felt a bit like reality has split from its originally-scheduled timeline and taken an entirely new tack. Just two weeks ago on Thursday, I was planning to come into the office on Friday, and then, on Thursday night, I was standing in line with hundreds of other panicked people at the grocery store, holding my eggs and milk in one hand, trying not to touch anything with the other.

That was the last time I was at the store. My days now mostly revolve around trying to get work done, teaching my daughter how to add pennies and nickles, helping the baby learn to walk, making meals, and cleaning up from those meals, over and over again, in a never-ending, 24-hour cycle that’s only broken by anxious glances at Twitter, where I see content like this:

Yesterday, we went to a local park that’s still open, and even the thrill of that was an enormous break from the repetitive physical and mental monotony.

I am back in the bardo, but this time, the entire country is with me. On our drive to the park, all the nearby businesses were closed. Our local pizza place is still open, but it only does takeout, and only one customer can enter at a time to pay and pick up. They wiped down my husband’s credit card. He brough his own pen to sign the credit card reciept.

Our local barber shop, coffee shop, and restaurants are all ghost towns. My hair salon’s smiling Valentine’s Day hearts look on blankly as I pass them by. At a nearby elementary school, a great big cherry tree full of birdhouses that the kids put together before school let out swings sadly in the lonely breeze. Grocery store parking lots are full of trash cans of discarded gloves. Today, I saw a single mask lying innocently on the ground next to a nearby house, unaware that it’s now worth its weight in gold.

We are all now, even if we still have to work, in a waiting state, cocooned, trying to give the medical professionals and the vaccine more time, more space, more chances.

How much more? It’s very, very unclear. A couple days ago, I asked people how long they thought quarantine in the U.S. was going to last, and the answer surprised me:

It seems that the sentiment is swaying the direction of this particular bardo ending towards July. After all, the Olympics, the Democratic Convetion, and Wimbledon, all in the summer, have either been cancelled or called off for now.

How long can we live in this indeterminate state? It’s hard to say. And no one is really preparing us for how long we should wait, and what to do when we just can’t.

My own personal breaking point, with two small kids in the house and both of us working full-time, is probably going to be somewhere around June.

For many people who have been laid off, the situation is much, much more dire. We are in completely uncharted waters, and we, as a country, economy, healthcare system, and culture, are barely keeping our collective head above water.

One of the few solaces we humans, an extremely social species, have lately, is in connecting with people online.

Which brings me to Zoom.

There have been a ton of articles trash-talking Zoom lately. Zoom is bad because iOS and Facebook SDK. Zoom is bad because Zoombombing. Zoom is bad because of Windows issues. Because hackers. And lots, lots more.

In a pre-corona Normcore world, my post would have been about how the CEO of Zoom used to work at Webex, or how all enterprise software is terrible because it’s engineered by people who are trying to capitalize on sales culture versus execution culture, or how we shouldn’t really trust what Zoom is doing or saying, or maybe something from its 10k statement, like the fact that they use both AWS and Azure, and have their own privately-linked data centers (remember how everything is data centers?)

But this is a brave, terrible new world, and with all of my immense focus on and belief in privacy as important, I am here to say that even if Zoom didn’t appologize and make the changes it enumerated in its recent blog posts, I wouldn’t care at the moment.

The time to care about privacy and Facebook and tracking was before this thing happened. The time to care started somewhere around 2012. The mainstream media finally started caring sometime around 2017. And we haven’t done nearly enough work in improving privacy and security online since. The time to care was yesterday. But we are in today, and today is a pandemic.

And in a pandemic, I’m personally more concerned about being able to see my family for Passover so my daughter can have at least some sense of the continuation of normalcy than the fact that the host of a Zoom meeting can see that I’ve moused away from the Zoom window (which, fortunately, is also not the case anymore.)

Yes, I’m still worried about privacy, about tracking, about all the stuff that will happen after we emerge from this thing. But, there is a time for everything, and, as my good friend Pushkin says, you can both care about nail polish and be a thoughtful person with regards to privacy and app usage (c.f. mean, my articles about Facebook, Keybase, and Chromebooks), and for me, in the bardo, the answer is that right now I very, very, very much care about just the nail polish. I need the nail polish to stay sane. I need the humanity more than I need the criticism of the platforms providing that humanity at the moment.

And once the world gets back on its feet, whichever day that ends up being, first, I’ll go out for a very long meal without the preschooler and the baby. I’ll sit in the sunshine and watch the crowds of people passing. I’ll finish my glass of wine, probably Purell my hands, remember the collective nightmare that was the last eighteen months, then I’ll roll up my sleeves and start being thoughtful again.

What I’m reading lately:

  1. The toilet paper shortage…or is it?

  2. This is hilarious.

  3. What will you do when this thing ends?

  4. It’s so easy


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The Author:
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.